Rotorua's Fairy-tale Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

The Taupo Volcanic Zone has one of the highest activity ratings in the world. It lies in the beating heart of New Zealand’s North Island and stretches from Mount Ruapehu into to the Pacific Ocean past White Island.


Wai O Tapu’s, whimsically named, Thermal Wonderland is a series of brightly coloured geothermal pools, stinky sulphur mud baths and explosive geysers directly in the middle of this volcanic zone.


The eruptions here are not like those on Hawaii where molten lava flows out over rocks into the ocean but are more gaseous and contain more natural elements.


It’s an attraction you certainly smell before you see. As the sulphur dioxide’s blown by the wind (that’s seemingly always gusting in your direction), you’re constantly reassured by all signs that it’s perfectly harmless in small doses.


Whilst we were on a tour on White Island, where sulphur was commercially mined, we learned that pure sulphur has no smell or taste and it’s only once it reacts with oxygen that the pungency is created.


Wai-O-Tapu was never mined but it was used by Maori villages and Europeans settlers for washing clothes, bathing and cooking. You’ll learn all this and more with a visit there.



Inspirational photos to convince you to visit wai-o-tapu's thermal wonderland

How do I get there?


The closest city is Rotorua, 30 minutes (30km) drive away. Taupo is around 55km away and takes around an hour. It’s really easy to find. Tours depart from both Taupo and Rotorua and a shuttle bus can be booked if you don’t have your own transport.


What are Wai-O-Tapu's best highlights?

The Champagne Pool


One of the iconic photo spots from New Zealand’s North Island, the Champagne Pool gets its name from the abundance of carbon dioxide much like with a glass of bubbling champagne. The vivid dali-esque champagne pool is caused from the high sulphur content combining with the ferrous salts in the water.


The leading line of orange sulphur deposit coupled with plumes of pungent steam are difficult to photograph but very rewarding. The crator that holds the pool is 65m (213ft) in diameter and roughly the same depth. Certain death for anyone who fell in. The pool is kept at around 73C (163F) by geothermally heated water that enters from its depths at 260C (500F).


The Devil's Bathtub


Like a melted emerald bath tub, this deep crater was created from an eruption far underground. Turns out Lucifer doesn’t like bubbles, rubber ducks and sponges but rather bathing in stinky sulphur in a bottomless pit. The iridescent lime colour comes from the sulphur floating on the surface. I’ve never seen anything like it before.


Lady Knox Geyser


Wai O Tapu has several active geysers, the most famous of which being the Lady Knox geyser which can spurt over 20m high and easily erupt for over an hour. Unlike the geysers I’ve seen on the Bolivian Altiplano which discharge continuously, the Lady Knox geyser is forced to erupt everyday by a park ranger and a bag of soap. If this wasn’t done, the geyser would naturally erupt every 24 to 48 hours at sporadic time intervals. The show starts at 10:15 daily but if you want front row seats plan on getting there at least 45 minutes beforehand. 


Ngakoro Lake


My favourite, Lake Ngakoro, turns from a dull olive green into iridescent acid green when the sunlight breaks through the clouds. It’s the furthest view point away from the visitor centre but certainly worth every effort. The nearby waterfall is also stunning.


The mud pools


A short 5-minute drive away from the Wai-O-Tapu the bubbling, coughing, spitting mud pools are fun to watch. Randomly spurting out all over a deep hot swamp.


Do I have to hike?


The walkway around all these incredible topographical is a mostly along a well-maintained boardwalk. There are 3 routes which are 1.5km, 2km and 3km and take 30 minutes, 40 minutes and 75 minutes respectively.


Upon purchasing your admission, you are given a map. Everything is really well sign posted though so you probably won’t need it, just follow the numbers. The path is adorned with informative signs at most crators and pools which are definitely worth reading.


Voted “One of the 20 Most Surreal Places in the World” by TripAdvisor, I and a few thousand others gave it an overall rating of 92%.


The sustainability program takes care of the craters that are only a few millennia old. Hopefully it makes sure that they last at least a few thousand years more. Afterall, Waiotapu does translate from Maori in English as “Sacred Waters”, so let’s make sure they stay sacred. Please obey all signs.


The Wai-O-Tapu experience features on all of my New Zealand North Island Itineraries, if you’re coming to over to this part of the world maybe they can help you plan. They’re free too.


The entry fee to the Thermal Wonderland is $32.50NZD per person and seeing as it can entertain you for around 3 to 4 hours is very well priced. That’s why we recommend it.


If you found this useful, you can book your Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland tickets here. Booking through Viator won’t cost you anything extra but for every booking you make I get paid a small commission. It helps me keep on creating useful articles like this one.


Have you seen any other natural phenomenon as crazy as these? let me know in the comments

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I am Marta Kulesza - the photographer and creator of www.inafarawayland.comI come from Poland, but I've been living, travelling and working around the globe since I turned 18. A few years ago, during one of my trips to Scotland, I bought my first DSLR and my adventure with photography began. When I am not stuck to my computer editing photos, you can find me somewhere in the mountains. 

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